A New Place

By Lynne M. Baab
Published in Candour, a publication of the Presbyterian Church in Aotearoa New Zealand, May 2009.

Communication has always mattered to Christians. Obeying the central commands of the New Testament – make disciples, preach the gospel, love one another – depends on effective communication.

Christians have always been on the forefront of adopting new forms of communication. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, classical rhetoric was the cutting edge communication strategy, used by politicians and public leaders. Augustine was one of the first Christians to apply principles of rhetoric to preaching, and during the medieval period many Christians studied rhetoric and wrote about its relevance for preaching. When the printing press was invented, Christians were among the earliest users, first for Bibles and then for pamphlets, printed tracts, magazines and books.

In the twentieth century, radio, television and film were quickly adopted by Christians and used creatively. The Jesus film, for example, has been translated into more than a thousand languages, more than any other film in history, and many mission experts view it as one of the greatest mission success stories.

In the last years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century, new communication technologies have been appearing with dizzying rapidity. These new technologies – such as DVDs, email, instant messaging, websites, blogs, social networking, cell phones, and digital cameras – are creating opportunities and challenges for Christians and for congregations that no one could have foreseen a decade or two ago.

Some of the new communication technologies have similarities to older forms in that they present information and tell stories. Many congregations use the Nooma and Alpha videos and DVDs, which are very similar to TV and film but in a more convenient and portable format. Many congregations have websites, which enable people to view information about a congregation whenever they want to. Some ministers have blogs, which allow them to communicate what they're thinking about, reading and learning.

In the early days of the internet, email was perceived as largely parallel to letters and printed memos, with the advantage of being faster. In those early days, back in the 1990s, the internet was understood as a tool for imparting and exchanging information. Since then, the internet has developed as a repository of information in amazing ways, and now we can access facts online that we never dreamed of even ten years ago. Conveying information and stories has always been significant for effective communication, and they continue to be important. But new considerations have arisen as well.

A Place

The word "place" conveys a key concept when considering the implications of new forms of communication for Christians and for congregations, particularly online communication. The internet has moved beyond being just an information tool. It is now a place where many people spent hours of each day, a place of information and stories like the older forms of communication, but also a place of connection, networking, and exchange of visual information as well.

Instant messaging began the shift, and further changes have come with the proliferation of blogs and social networking websites, which allow feedback and participation from viewers in ways that are foreign to TV and film, the major communication innovations of the mid-twentieth century. Blogs enable the writer to impart snippets of information, but also provide a place for dialog from readers. Some congregational websites provide places for people to post photos or comments. Social networking websites, like Facebook and Twitter, provide a place for connections in many different ways, allowing participants to talk about what they're doing, show photos of their lives, and post links to the articles and videos that they think are interesting. Skype and other forms of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocols) facilitate talk and collaboration without travelling to the other person's location.

Many, many people spend hours of their day online exchanging information and connecting with people. In the same way that a stroll down the hall at work to hand over a piece of paper to a co-worker often results in a chat about the upcoming rugby match, online interactions often include a personal connection as well as an exchange of information. If we believe that Christians bring God's love into every place they go, and if we believe that Christians are called to go to the places where people hang out and live, then we have to take seriously this "place" where people spend so much time.

"Real" Relationships

Yes, but are online relationships "real"? Aren't we encouraging a kind of plastic, faceless, technocratic form of communication? Aren't face-to-face relationships better?

The more I talk with people who spend a lot of time online, and the more time I spend online myself, the more I understand that face-to-face relationships and online relationships are seamlessly connected for most internet users. Let's consider a twenty-eight-year-old I will call Simon.(1) Simon has a Facebook profile as well as a blog where he writes about politics and movies. His Facebook profile has a link to his blog. Simon has been on Facebook for a few of years, and over that time he has accumulated 228 "friends" on Facebook, both men and women. Some of them are people he knew in high school and college and with whom he remained in touch, so it was natural to find them on Facebook and connect with each other there. Others are friends from childhood and high school with whom he had totally lost touch, but they reconnected through Facebook. A couple dozen of his Facebook friends are work colleagues, friends from his neighborhood, and people he knows from his church.

Some of Simon's Facebook friends are people he has never met in person but who are friends of his friends, and they got connected online because they had common interests in films and politics. He got connected with several of his other Facebook friends through blogging. Some of them write blogs he likes to read, and others have read Simon's blog and found him on Facebook.

Every day or two Simon updates his Facebook profile with his latest thoughts and activities. He also posts links to interesting online articles he's read and You Tube videos he liked. All of his friends receive a notice about his updates, and he receives notice of his friends' updates to their profiles. If a friend is doing something interesting, Simon fires off a message to that friend using Facebook's e-mail or instant messaging capacity, which might result in a brief online exchange over the course of the day. It might also result in a social event that evening or during the next weekend.

Simon is in several groups on Facebook, including a group from his church. Sometimes he finds out about something interesting going on at church because of the Facebook group.

Simon loves blogging, and he reads dozens of blogs each week. He writes comments on some of them, sometimes giving a link to his own blog, and sometimes those other bloggers read his blog posts and make comments. He experiences a sense of significant connection with some of those bloggers—including a few who have become Facebook friends—because he dialogues with them fairly intensely about politics and movies.

Simon's relationships flow seamlessly between the online and face-to-face environments. He attends a film discussion group at church, and many people in the group are his friends on Facebook and they continue the discussion of films through their Facebook posts. Sometimes the discussion of a film begins on Facebook or on a blog post and results in an outing to see that film. Many of his Facebook friends and church friends read his blog, and they post their opinions and thoughts there. He lives several hundred kilometers from the town where he grew up, and when he plans a trip home, he uses his Facebook page and his blog to let his friends know he is coming so that he can see them in person.

Simon's parents are quite concerned about all these online relationships. They wonder if all the people Simon meets online are actually honest about who they are. They worry that Simon will be tricked or manipulated by people faking their identity. Simon tosses off his parents' concerns. What does it matter, he asks, if he has a dialogue through Facebook or his blog with someone who is covering up his or her real identity? If the conversation is interesting, that's good enough.

And he would never arrange to meet a stranger anywhere private. The few times he has arranged to meet up with someone he met online, he always chooses a coffee shop as the location for that first meeting, and he chooses other public places for the second and third meetings as well. How is that any different than meeting a stranger at a cafe and arranging to meet up a second time, he wonders. Unscrupulous people can be anywhere, including the neighborhood or the workplace. We can have an interesting conversation with a shady person online or face-to-face. The same kinds of safeguards need to be in place.

Simon's pattern of relationships, flowing back and forth between online and face-to-face connections, is typical among the young people I have talked with, both men and women. "Simon" is a composite of several people I interviewed. However, Simon's amazing number of social connections is not at all unusual among the people in their teens, twenties and thirties I talked with. His social contacts might be facilitated online, through texting or in person, but no one can doubt that he is well-connected and involved both intellectually and socially with his friends. This pattern of relationships is increasingly typical of my own life and many others who are a long way from being "young people."

"Real" Connections

I've spent a lot of time describing Simon's pattern of relationships because of the many fears I hear in congregational settings about online communication being less valuable or less "real" than face-to-face communication. When the telephone was invented, similar fears were expressed. "Real" communication, it was felt, would be lost because facial expressions and body language are not visible over the telephone. Phones now seem innocuous. We see them as essential tools that help us stay connected with people we care about.

I've been on Facebook for only six months, and I get a huge kick out of it. I love being connected to old friends and new friends, I love to see their photos and what they're up to, and I love reading the articles and watching the videos that they consider interesting enough to post.

I've joined a lot of Facebook groups, some of which are connected to ministry organizations I value. I get frequent messages on Facebook from those ministry organizations, telling me what they're up to.

If the internet is increasingly experienced as a place, how can congregations and Christian individuals serve God in that place? That big, overarching question will include a lot of smaller, practical questions:

  • How much money and time can we afford to spend on a website?
  • Is a blog a good way to communicate with some members of the congregation?
  • Should we have a Facebook group or page?
  • What about the other social networking websites like Twitter, Bebo, and LinkedIn?
  • And how can we navigate the growing reality that communication is becoming individualized?

An Anglican minister told me that she communicates with her lay leaders largely through email, but a few leaders aren't online, so she still needs to ring them on the telephone. But two of her youngest lay leaders no longer check their email very often, because most of their online connection happens through Facebook. Will she have to join Facebook in order to communicate with them? And will she need to send cell phone text messages to yet others?

The answer to her questions may be "yes," indicating one of the challenges of these shifts in communication patterns. A second challenge comes from the increasing emphasis on visual communication.

The Rise of the Visual

Numerous scholars and observers have documented the rise in visual communication which has steadily changed the face of communication in recent decades. Films and television have enabled us see things as well as read or hear about them. Digital cameras and cameras in cell phones have changed the way we circulate photos. The wider culture is increasingly visually rich, which raises expectations for congregations in the way they use visuals.

This impacts many ways congregations communicate who they are and what they value. Prospective visitors want (and expect) to see what the congregation is like. Therefore, photos on websites and in brochures are increasingly significant as a means of giving visitors a glimpse of the congregation.

A consideration of visual components in congregational life is also essential in our time. Leadership Journal (2) reported on a survey that showed that ministers are increasingly using props as a part of worship services and sermons to illustrate the points they want to make. Costumes, visual art, banners, and other kinds of visual decoration are increasingly significant in this visually-oriented culture.

The same Leadership survey reported on the increased use of projection screens in churches of all sizes across the theological spectrum. In an increasingly visual culture, projection screens need to be used for more than words. Many preachers use visual images as well as words as they preach.

Many ministers in the baby boom generation and older believe that they are engaging with visual culture by using PowerPoint slides with bullet points to prepare their sermons. Edward Tufte, a researcher who studies the visual presentation of various kinds of data, argues that bullet point lists are a very poor way to present information because they are overly simplistic and thus they blur complex and nuanced relationships between ideas.(3) Many Christians in Generation X and Generation Y would not consider bullet point lists to be visual. They understand the much greater richness of photos, art, and other kinds of visual images in communicating and illustrating stories, in part because their time online has shown them the impact of visual images.

Many writers who discuss ministry in the twenty-first century emphasize the significance of story-telling. Stories can be told visually as well as verbally. One congregational website I looked at provided a place for members to post photos, and when I looked at the site, more than 11,000 photos had been posted. Those photos gave me a sense of the congregation's life and the life of the people in it. Those photos told stories in powerful ways.

Impersonal? Faceless?

As I talk to people in congregations about communication, I hear lots of concerns about online communication being impersonal and detached. Yet as I exchange emails with friends, as I read blogs and look at Facebook, I engage with personal stories and I see stories through photos. I interact with ideas that people are writing about or thinking about. I would never advocate wholesale replacement of face-to-face communication with online connections, and it's clear that a person can spend too much time online. However, in this busy and fragmented society, with friends strewn around the world, I love being able to get a glimpse of my friends' lives online. Those friends might be here in Dunedin or they might be thousands of miles away, but they are a rich part of my life.

An old friend and his family live in Kathmandu, where they do literacy work. I love looking at photos of their life there which they have loaded onto a photo sharing website. Another old friend posts links to fascinating video clips about racial justice on her Facebook site. I love watching them. A new friend here in Dunedin posts links to interesting articles, and I love reading them. Sometimes we discuss them online and sometimes we discuss them in person. Visual and verbal stories, snippets of everyday life. These are the kinds of stories that used to be shared only in person in the cafeteria at work, at the neighborhood shop or while watching the kids play sport. Now those stories are shared online as well.

Darrell Guder is Princeton Seminary Dean and advocate for a missional view of church ministry. In discussing the significance of the local congregation as the center of mission, he writes:

The "one another" passages, almost one hundred New Testament imperatives emphasizing the mutuality of Christian community, only make sense within a community whose members are committed to Christ and to one another. Such relationships require frequency of contact and communication, common worship and Christian activity, and mutual responsibility and support. (4)

In our time, some of that frequent contact, communication, mutual responsibility and support happens in online settings. The challenges for Christian leaders today include learning to use the online environment wisely to communicate information, as well as helping congregation members grow in wisdom and integrity in using the internet to facilitate relationships and nurture community.

Information AND Connections

I believe every church should have a website that presents information – using words, photos, and links – describing what the congregation values and who it is. Some congregations don't have the money or volunteers to update a website regularly, and in that case they should ask someone to create a simple and attractive website with basic information, with a phone number and email address where changing information can be accessed, such as worship times and additional activities. If at all possible, congregations should consider budgeting some money for the creation and regular upkeep of a website. If the internet is a place where many people spent a lot of time, then a presence in that place is desirable, so potential visitors can access the information they need in order to feel comfortable visiting the church and so members can get resources to nurture their faith.

I believe every minister should consider having a blog. In addition, the leader of any ministry in a congregation that relies on volunteers should consider having a blog. Blogs are free, and blogging websites such as Blogger (www.blogger.com) provide templates for setting up a blog. Posts on blogs can and should be informal and short, around 250 words at the most. Blog posts can include such things as preliminary thoughts about the scripture to be used in worship the next weekend, a brief description of a helpful Christian book, reflection on a current event, news about an upcoming conference, some thoughts about a recent movie or bestselling book and links to websites that have helpful resources for Christians. With busy schedules, blogs provide a place for dialog that can take place at odd times, not just before or after a church event when people are physically present. (An excellent book that describes the opportunities that blogging presents for ministers and leaders is The Blogging Church by Brian Bailey and Terry Storch.)

I believe congregational leaders need to carefully consider the opportunities presented by social networking websites such as Facebook, particularly if some members of the congregation use one of the social networking websites.

If the internet is indeed a place where people gather to exchange information, discuss things that matter to them, tell stories and post photos that illustrate the stories of their lives, then congregations and their leaders need to be there discussing things that matter and telling stories about God's presence in daily life. They need to be there with words and visuals. They need to nurture connections between people that flow seamlessly between online and face-to-face places and that reflect God's love.

Questions for reflection and discussion

For people who don't spend a lot of time online:

  • Are you open to hearing from others the way they perceive that their friendships and relationships are nurtured online?
  • Are you willing to listen openly and with respect to friends and family members as they talk about the ways they believe their life is enriched because of the internet?

For people who spend a lot of time online:

  • Are you open to hearing from God or from friends that you need to spend more time nurturing face-to-face relationships?
  • Do you submit your internet use to God's scrutiny, as you might submit any activity you participate in?
  • Do you pray that you would manifest Christian character and the fruit of the Spirit online as well as in face-to-face relationships?

1 Simon's story is adapted from Reaching Out in a Networked World: Expressing Your Congregation's Heart and Soul by Lynne M. Baab (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2008), 116-118.

2 Eric Reed, "Preaching by Faith and by Sight," Leadership Journal, Summer 2007, 25–27.

3 Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press: 2003),

4 Darrell L. Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 148.